Monday, June 22, 2009

'Til You Are Sleeping

Sitting on a bus dressed in quasi-pioneer clothing (half Banana Republic/half J.Jill), surrounded by 48 teenagers in same said clothing, precious bottle of Diet Mountain Dew (bought at the Bear River State Park, Wyoming vending machine with borrowed quarters) clutched in my lap. We had a 5 a.m. start and there are miles to go before we sleep. My bowels are sluggish and not timed to coincide with rest stops. I wonder how they will fare with the longdrop toilets, two per gender for 260 people.

The kids are worried about the 8 miles we get to trek this afternoon pulling handcarts and who will be assigned to which handcart families. I'm worried about how the tennis shoes are going to look with my outfit once I take off the Franco Sarto silver-buttoned sandals and hit the trail. I think I would have been the woman who insisted on taking her piano in the handcart, and her books, and her favorite, bright red shawl with orange poppies embroidered on it. Flour? Pans? What? I might have wandered off to look at the stands of Indian paintbrush. Later, around the fire, Kevin would ask, "Have any of your children seen your mother?" "I don't know Dad. Last I saw, she was rounding a hill, running with wolves." "Well, I guess we can unload the piano."

I'm watching Wyoming go by through the bus window. I'm wondering. First, just why? Second, why did somebody build a luxury hotel with free ice cream and a 31-inch screen in every room (if the billboards are to be believed) in the middle of Wyoming? Third, what does one do in Green River, other than eat at the Arctic Circle? Seems to me if I lived in Wyoming, I couldn't live in a town. The towns spread out beneath the Wyoming sky just reinforce how small and insignificant they really are. I would have to live out, out and away, just me and a home and a barn and fences and pronghorn antelope, beneath a sky that dwarfs any pretensions of grandeur and clouds that lift one's eyes heavenward by their very nature. Where, when the wind blows, you can see it move through the grass like water, echoing the river's face, and the clouds' trace across the sky. Where, when the wind blows, you don't measure its irritation by the sound of the branch banging against the loose rain gutter and the damage it could do to your potted plants, but its power as it moves across the space of your vision into other worlds.

The place we're going is Martin's Cove, a place where Mormon immigrants pulling handcarts into the face of an early winter blizzard were rescued, but not before starvation, exhaustion and death. I've been there before. Six years ago, in exactly the same pioneer outfits, with some of the same kids. So, I know what to expect. It's ground like Gettysburg. Hallowed ground, where lives were given for an ideal, laid down in front of the very rocks and trees I will walk between. I know I will feel those spirits in my bones, as I did at Gettysburg.

But today, I'm not thinking about death and sacrifice, today I'm thinking about rescue. About what it takes to rescue and be rescued; how it's so much easier to rescue those who are dying politely, quietly desperate for your help.

I try to imagine the scene as the forward parties of rescuers who had been travelling from Salt Lake City since October 6th or 7th came upon the desperate companies between Devil's Gate and Martin's Cove. These men had been on the trail from Salt Lake City for two weeks, leaving, it's said, their crops in the field, taking their best horses and wagons, racing against time and a startlingly early winter to reach those still walking toward the valley. One man's responsibility was to keep the roads over the mountain passes open by trampling the waist-deep snow with his oxen. Imagine that duty, to keep the roads open at the top of Rocky Mountain passes during blizzards. You don't even get to be the hero riding in on the wagon. You just get to trample snow until you've made a passable road, not knowing whether what you do will be of any effect.

I'm thinking it's best for the rescuers to come upon those waiting to be rescued when they're half frozen, with blackened feet, in a circle of rocks outside Devil's Gate, surrounded by unburied corpses, and trying to survive on four ounces of flour a day in wet clothing and temperatures below zero. You'd get greeted with the kind of humble ceremony and gratitude you'd think fitting. When you're helping, particularly if you're leaving your crops and taking your best horses on a two week slog into early winter, you expect those being rescued to be appropriately humble, grateful, and fittingly destitute. It's a little off putting when they offer opinions about your help, or request the exact manner in which they would like to be rescued, which of course, is not precisely the manner in which you envisioned it, and by their comments, your best efforts are obviously falling short of their expectations.

What if the people needing help (the notion of what help is needed is also up for discussion; sometimes the help given is an attempt to get their lives to look a little more like ours) are like the penguins that need rescuing off the coast of South Africa after oil spills.

Some haphazard, oil tanker goes aground of the Cape of Storms. The tank ruptures and oil spreads through the breeding grounds and rookeries of thousands of penguins that live off the coast, on rocky outcroppings and islands. The penguins get covered in oil. Oil-covered penguins sink in water. So boats rush in, filled with rescuers who scoop up the oil-covered birds, which birds, in turn, bite, and hard.

I remember seeing pictures of oil penguin rescues in the Cape Times, when I was a kid. The rescuers hands and fingers were wrapped in thick tape and bandages, either to ward off against the penguins' beaks, or to cover cuts and bites already inflicted by the birds. It looked like they'd been playing with chainsaws. The penguins were held in a death grip on the cleaning table, and still they turned their heads, Chucky-like (never seen it) to bite the hands cleaning them.

At some point, say after the fifteenth bite maybe, if I were the rescuer, I would be wont to throw my hands up in the air and say, "Alright then, okay then . . . die, sucker . . . just sit in this oil and die." Which response might be marginally okay when it's penguins, except if they're on the endangered species list. (But judging by the colony at Boulders, the penguins are doing fine, Liberian ship captains notwithstanding.) But not such a good approach to take with people—especially people with children whom they drag along with them, to a fourth generation of misery.

As I think about this on the bus, William Faulkner-like stream-of-conscious, I wonder, when is it okay to abandon the rescue? When it gets unpleasant (penguin crap on your shoes); dangerous to limb (penguin beak slashing across your hands); dangerous to life (penguin beak in your eyeball penetrating to your brain)? When those to be rescued don't really want you there? Do you turn around and leave? Can you do that? Abandon ship mid-rescue?

I suppose an easy cut off point is when your tour of duty is up: your one year in Vietnam; your eighteen months in Billings, Montana; your nine months as the fifth-grade teacher at Wasatch School. Even though the need might not yet be met, the artificial finish line gives us a sense we've done our part. But for those rescues with no finite finish, with those that involve the people around you whose need you have noticed and responded to, I'm sensing it has something to do with what/who started you on that rescue; with the impulse that motivated you; with the purpose behind the impulse to rescue. I'm thinking that on one hand it's not okay to stop when the impulse ends. The decision to stop has to be more than just "I'm not feeling it" anymore. After the fifteenth bite, my impulse is to let the sucker drown.

I am reading Freshwater Road this week, about a young "high yellow" woman, Celeste, who leaves Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she is going to college in the sixties, for Pineyville, Mississippi to run a voting project to enlist black voters during Freedom Summer. As she stands on the street corner in Jackson handing out voter information sheets to black and white alike during her training, she thinks about her mother who has opted out of the race race by moving to New Mexico where classifications are not as rigid as in Pineyville, Mississippi. She senses her mother's disdain for what she is doing, her incredulity that Celeste would put out for people who would not do likewise:

She shook off thoughts of Wilamena's . . . assumed superiority, as if every kind or giving gesture toward another human being qualified as a favor that had to be reciprocated. Wilamena never got what the gesture did for the person offering—not as something to lord over others, but as an expression of one's humanity. Just like the graduation.

Wilamena couldn't put herself out to attend her own children's graduations from high school, and yet thought it just fine to continue asking them to come to New Mexico. Some people got it and some didn't. There was no blessed community in required reciprocity, but there certainly was in flat-out giving.

There in, perhaps, is an answer. We rescue because we are able. We give because we can and have. We continue until we are no longer able, or no longer needed. How long? Not when authority tells us to stop, but until we don't notice need anymore. In the legal world, if you give somebody notice, you make them aware that an action is starting against them. In my internal world, when I notice, I know I have been called to action. If I notice, like the Good Samaritan, I believe I have been called to rescue by a universe that knows all need. There is some combination of what I can give and what is needed that causes me to notice. Ironically, as I move to fulfill need, in my movement toward and my commitment to, I become more genuine, more filled with compassion, more human; and our community, more blessed.

Title: from Les Miserables, "A Little Fall of Rain."

1 comment:

  1. Just please keep writing. We need this kind of intelligent discourse (comment section included) on the rare and such a pleasure to read. Thanks again, Tessa, for sharing your gift.